In 2012, Ben Lerner published the short story “The Golden Vanity,” in which a fictional author, between having oral surgery and donating his minimal archive of letters to a university library, considers his mortality and legacy. In Lerner’s new novel, the (also fictional) author of “The Golden Vanity” has received an enormous publishing advance to write a book, which, in turn, is the book we’re reading by Lerner, an author quite similar to the two he creates. Got that? This masterful, at times dizzying novel reevaluates not just what fiction can do but what it is.
As in the original story, 10:04’s narrator—also named Ben—is navigating a series of critical decisions; a doctor recently discovered a potentially fatal dilation of his aorta, his best friend has asked him to conceive a child with her, and all the while, he must come to terms with his own literary success and write his next novel. Lerner bookends the story with the narrator’s experiences of Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy in New York and, in stunningly hypnotic prose (Lerner is also a talented poet), fills the intervening year with both introspection and mundane action. While working at the Park Slope Food Coop, Ben hears another volunteer’s stirring family history and wonders which true-life stories he can appropriate for his writing. While taking a student he tutors to the American Museum of Natural History, he panics, unable to fathom how to watch his charge and use the restroom—a moment that provokes greater concerns about his possibly impending role as a father and caretaker.
Cuttingly hilarious and incisive, Lerner’s novel would be a success without the layers of fiction (on reality on fiction). But with that narrative device, the book achieves brilliance, at once a study of how fiction functions and an expansive catalog of life.